Two times two million

Two UMCG researchers have received a European top subsidy of two million euros each. The subsidies are ERC Consolidator Grants for superlative researchers with considerable experience.

Marieke Wichers’ research will focus on predicting relapse or recovery in patients with depression. She has not yet succeeded in doing so, since the condition is dependent upon multiple factors: mood, environment, living situation, and medication. ‘It is enormously complex, and consequently, the field of psychiatry thought: what can we do with this?

But then, Wichers came across the theory of complex dynamic systems. This theory is used in climate research, among others, to explain why there are sometimes unexpected large changes in the climate. ‘When using this theory in climate research, it is evident that there are signals which can be measured just before the tipping point. These show that the system becomes less stable’, says Wichers. ‘They build up, like a volcano which is ready to erupt’.

Now, Wichers will investigate whether depression acts in the same way as a dynamic system. She is going to measure and chart the mood of depressive patients who are possibly at a breaking point – for instance because they are coming off their medication or have been in therapy for some time – a few times every day to see whether it is possible to pick up on signals which indicate that the ‘system’ is becoming less stable.

The pilot results were promising. If her research is successful, it could lead to better monitoring of patients in the danger zone, or adjustments in therapy.

Unchecked tumor growth

Marcel van Vugt also received two million euros from the ERC. He is going to research unchecked tumor growth in order to see whether there is a way to tackle them. ‘Tumor cells divide rapidly and, in doing so, they make many errors. These errors can be disadvantageous to them, but they have learnt tricks to get around that.’

Van Vugt wants to know how they do that and, through examination, he discovered a group of proteins which become active in the last stage of cell division. The proteins seem to be able to repair errors in the cell at the last minute. ‘We think that there are more proteins involved and we want to find them so that we can develop medicines which can deactivate them. Moreover, we want to investigate how many errors a specific kind of tumor makes so that we can look at which tumors would be the most suitable to be handled with this therapy.’

Van Vugt is focusing on certain types of breast cancer and ovarian cancer in his research, but he believes that the principle he is researching is very generic and will ultimately be suitable for more types of cancer. However, there is still some way to go. ‘In this project, we are only focusing on these two types.’